Meacher admits GM crops threaten organic output/evidence of harm (20/5/2003)

20 May 2003

Meacher admits GM crops threaten organic output/evidence of harm

*Meacher admits GM crops threaten organic output
*GM crops may be given go-ahead in GM-free Wales via EU
*Chromosomal abnormalities in GM plants and other evidence of harm - important article
Meacher admits GM crops threaten organic output
Paul Brown, environment correspondent
Tuesday May 20, 2003
The Guardian,9061,959641,00.html

Contamination from GM crops threatens the drive to increase organic food production, Michael Meacher, the environment minister, conceded yesterday.  "The coexistence of organic and GM crops is a very real problem," he said. "Whatever decisions the government comes to about the commercial growing of GM crops in Britain, it has to be compatible with allowing the growth of organics."

About 30% of the organic produce consumed in Britain is grown here. The government wants to increase this to 70% by 2010, and yesterday it issued its first progress report.

Mr Meacher said Tesco, the UK's biggest food retailer, sold organic food worth £250m a year, and intended to sell £1bn a year by 2005. All super markets in Britain had a no-GM policy. Though consumers might be opposed to GM crops, he added, it was impossible under EU rules for Britain to stop them being grown commercially, unless it found health or environmental evidence they were harmful. Ethical or moral reasons did not count.

This admission has angered anti-GM campaigners, two weeks before the government- sponsored debate on the commercial growing of GM crops in Britain begins. If the UK has no alternative, the debate is pointless, they say. The government says it will take full account of the public's views when coming to a decision.  Mr Meacher said the government was awaiting a report from an advisory body, the agriculture and environment biotechnology commission, on how to make it possible to combine GM, organic and conventional farming.

This included the issues of the distance between crops, to avoid cross contamination by pollen, and compensation for farmers whose crops might be made unsaleable as a result of their proximity to GM crops.
The government report on organics showed that, since 1996, the area had risen from 25,000 hectares to 250,000 last year, although 27% of this was in conversion from conventional crops. Organic farmers had grown from 900 to 4,000 in the same period.  About 4% of agricultural land was organic, and it was a £1bn a year business, Mr Meacher said. The government favoured organic production: it used less energy, caused less pollution to air and water, and less nitrate loss from soil.
GM crops may be given the go-ahead under EU legislation
May 20 2003
by Rhodri Clark, The Western Mail

THE future of Wales's GM-free status was thrown into confusion yesterday after the Government suggested Britain may not be free to decide on the issue.  Environment Minister Michael Meacher said refusing a licence for genetically modified farm crops might not be an option under European Union legislation.

A public consultation exercise on GM foods is due to begin in a fortnight's time, with opinion polls suggesting less than 15% of the population supports GM.

The National Assembly, which has voted to keep Wales GM-free, said yesterday it may be powerless to resist.  But environmental campaigners insisted the European directive for GM crops included an opt-out clause for areas that could prove negative environmental consequences.
On BBC Radio 4's 'Farming Today' 19 May the BBC interviewed UK Environment Minister Michael Meacher. He indicated that whilst the government will 'listen' to the public, the public will not have the final say on whether GMOs will be allowed to be grown in the UK ( ).

Mr Meacher stated: "We have to act in accordance with the law, and the law at the present moment is set down in the EU Directive and the key and sole criteria for taking action in regard to GM crops is: 'Are they a harm, a risk to health or the environment?'...."

The debate therefore is likely to focus especially on evidence of such harm or risk. However, one matter in particular is being swept under the carpet in this respect. Very rarely is detailed cytogenetic analysis of GM plants carried out and published. One of our earlier bulletins reports on this subject as follows:

"Not surprisingly this chaotic situation [inherent in the physical process of genetic modification] routinely creates plants which are abnormal in comparison to their conventionally bred counterparts, a fact which is rarely discussed in public by the scientific community. Clearly such genetic aberrations are not desirable. Because of their potentially unwelcome effects, the genetic engineer will then attempt to filter out those plants which are abnormal. Sometimes the abnormalities are visibly obvious. For example, the image below shows seedlings of transgenic tomato plants, where approximately a quarter have a lethal mutation in the form of bleached cotyledons [see web page for photo]....
Such obvious adverse mutations can be easily 'weeded' out. But what about the abnormalities that cannot be seen by eye? Very often many of these will go undetected simply because little or no molecular research has been done as to their existence, nature and significance. As a recent paper by scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, (Plant Science 160 (2001) 763-772) points out ' detailed cytogenetic analysis of transgenic oat plants has been reported. Only a few detailed reports on cytogenetic analysis of transgenic plants [of any kind] have been done...'

Cytogenetics is the study of the microscopic structure of chromosomes.
The above statement by the scientists at Berkeley represents one of the franker admissions in the published literature of the non-scientific nature of genetic engineering.....

The cytogenetic work on the 'particle bombardment' generated transgenic oats at the University of California ....describes the much higher frequency of chromosomal abnormalities in transgenic plants compared with non-transgenic lines...  However, even in this rare published study the authors confirm that their methodology only permits quantitation of 'gross changes in chromosomal integrity' and that it is 'also likely that other less visible changes in chromosomal fidelity occur e.g. mutation, methylation polymorphism'....

Does that really matter? The Berkeley paper makes it clear that this ....can have important consequences: 'In transgenic [oat] plants...overall fertility was dramatically reduced by the transformation [i.e. genetic modification] process... The phenomenon of reduced fertility or sterility has also been observed frequently in other transgenic cereals.... sterility and low fertility in abnormal plants are likely related to chromosomal damage or instability of chromosome number during abnormal meiosis...'

Plant breeders will claim that such difficulties can be filtered out by testing in the field. A paper published by scientists from the US Department of Agriculture and Monsanto in 1999 concerning transgenic potatoes gives an indication of the process involved in this: '... transformation often changes cultivar yield and quality characteristics that are agronomically important....The gene [introduced through genetic engineering] itself can affect the plant growth and type.. Off-type plants can often be identified among new transformants in tissue culture media by their lack of vigor or by conformational aberrations.. More subtle vigor and growth aberration defects that are not obvious at an earlier stage are often exhibited after plantlets are transferred from soil flats to the field.In our experience with potatoes.[although] growth aberration is usually associated with poor vigor, it does sometimes occur in vigorous lines......'

So obvious problems are filtered out. Unfortunately, the less obvious are not. This is already clear from the experience with the world's most widely planted GM crop, 'Roundup Ready' soya. Only after commercialisation was it discovered that additional DNA of unknown origin had been inadvertently incorporated within the genome of the new organism. More importantly it is now considered that the process of genetic modification in this case has lead to the disruption of other aspects of the soya plant's functioning resulting in reduced yields for farmers compared to conventionally bred sister lines.

Whilst this unwelcome effect may be primarily a problem for soya farmers, who is to say what the long term consequences of such genetic distortions may be in the future for human health in this or any other GM food? Unfortunately, as the Berkeley study indicates, the commercial interests now responsible for funding much of the development of transgenic technology do not have a strong inclination to carry out and publish even the most basic cytogenetic analysis."
[Taken from Tearing Down Biotech's 'Berlin Wall' - The Fundamental Scientific Error of Pursuing Transgenics Before Competency in Genomics - NLPWessex, 4 May 2003 ]

Whilst there is very little peer reviewed published research on the health effects of GM food, already adverse effects on either laboratory animals or human beings have been demonstrated in relation to at least:
GM soya
GM maize
GM potatoes
GM tomatoes
GM hormone for injection into cows for milk production (where the company tried to hide the research)  You can read more about this research at:,2763,756666,00.html
For more on the general lack of such research see:

According to the BBC "Two weeks ago, the Royal Society said there was no evidence eating GM foods was any different from eating naturally produced food".  ( ).

As the above papers indicate this statement is simply untrue. This situation is deeply damaging to the reputation of science which is increasingly regarded as having become subservient to commercial interests. As the highly respected journal 'The Lancet' has already made clear: "Trust is no defence against an aggressively deceptive corporate sector." ( ).
In the case of GM foods there is already evidence that there can be harm. The issue simply boils down to how important that evidence is, and whether there might there be more evidence if we made a serious attempt to find it (particularly by using independent scientists to design and carry out the testing, rather than relying on the GM companies).

In short it's easy to say there are no adverse effects from GM foods if you ignore 'inconvenient' research or avoid doing it in the first place.
Interestingly in a paper published by researchers in Egypt (Toxins Volume 6, Issue 6, 1998. Pages: 219-233) it was found that GM potatoes containing the Cry1 Bt gene caused damage to part of the small intestine in rats. This gene is already contained in GM crops grown across millions of acres in the US. (Novartis's Bt maize approved 1997 for growing in the EU contains the CryIA(b) gene)
According to one commentator "The evidence ...that the Bt Cry1 damages the ileum is very clear and should not have been ignored. ..... The damaged ileum would cause distress to digestion and is likely diagnosed as mild food poisoning or flu."

As it happens reported food related illnesses in the US have more than doubled since the introduction of GM foods, although no epidemiological studies appear to have been done to establish whether there is any connection. That would be virtually impossible in a country where there is no GM food labelling or consumption monitoring.

In an article in Nature 22 April 1999 it is stated that "Ben Miflin, former director of the Institute of Arable Crops at Rothamsted, near London, who is a proponent of the potential benefits of genetic modification of crops.... argues that, under current monitoring conditions, any unanticipated health impact of such foods would need to be a 'monumental disaster' to be detectable."

It is important to understand that most GM food testing is carried out by the GM companies themselves and not by the regulatory authorities. Some of these companies already have a track record of surpressing damaging research data in genetic engineering or other bioscience fields.
During the same BBC 'Farming Today' broadcast there was an interview with Professor Malcolm Hooper of Sunderland University who commented as follows:  "I think [GM research] is not transparent at all. And where investigations have taken place about drugs or about radiation, when people have been able to get at the records which have been hidden and which have been kept under wraps by a company, then it has become apparent that there have been much bigger problems than were initially admitted - and certainly admitted to the public. So I think the transparency of the science is absolutely crucial. We need an open debate, but we need the information on the table, and we need the experiments on the table so we can see how well they have been designed and many experiments are badly designed. Some of them are even duplicitously designed in order to  get the result the company asks for. And I would think if big companies are not prepared to engage in this transparent process, then I think they will have to suffer the consequence of government legislation which will say 'no' to the products that they're advocating. If they are simply making sweeping assertions - and sometimes government agencies are supporting them in this: 'We don't think there's a problem, our people have looked at it' - and you say, 'well how have you looked at it, where's your data, where's your experiments, where's your papers, has it been published?' And the answer is very often [unsatisfactory]." }

More information on such matters is available at:
There is no question that there is already enough evidence of the harm or risk to which Mr Meacher refers, sufficient to demonstrate that at the very least further reseach is required before GM crops and foods can be legally authorised for commercial use under EU law.  Failure to do so is likely to lead to legal action against those who do not appropriately apply the precautionary principle (as enshrined in EU law - ) in such matters.  There is no reason for not applying such precaution at this stage.

According to a recent position statement by the European Commission ( ): "... the precautionary principle presupposes that potentially dangerous effects deriving from a phenomenon, product or process have been identified, and that scientific evaluation does not allow the risk to be determined with sufficient certainty.... Decision-makers need to be aware of the degree of uncertainty attached to the results of the evaluation of the available scientific information.

Judging what is an 'acceptable' level of risk for society is an eminently political responsibility. Risk can rarely be reduced to zero, but incomplete risk assessments may greatly reduce the range of options open to risk managers. A total ban may not be a proportional response to a potential risk in all cases. However, in certain cases, it is the sole possible response to a given risk Where action is deemed necessary, measures based on the precautionary principle should be, inter alia... [e]xamining costs and benefits... This is not simply an economic cost-benefit analysis: its scope is much broader, and includes non-economic considerations, such as the efficacy of possible options and their acceptability to the public. In the conduct of such an examination, account should be taken of the general principle and the case law of the Court that the protection of health takes precedence over economic considerations.... measures based on the precautionary principle should be maintained so long as scientific information is incomplete or inconclusive."

The 'benefit' side of the debate is also covered in the 'Farming Today' discussion.  In particular Dr Denis Murphy, from the University of Glamorgan and an advisor to the government on  GMs, makes some interesting comments. Although he does not have concerns about the risk to human health of the GM varieites currently grown in North America he states: "What I am a little more skeptical about is their value as agricultural varities, whether they are really going to be profitable or the next big agricultural revolution".

This statement is supported by analysis published by the US Department of Agriculture during 2002. Its economic research concludes that "Perhaps the biggest issue raised by these results is how to explain the rapid adoption of GE crops when farm financial impacts appear to be mixed or even negative." (see: 'USDA Report Exposes GM Crop Economics Myth',  NLPWessex 22 August 2002 ).

If the benefits for farmers are more imaginary than real, then the situation would seem to be even worse for consumers.

Dr Murphy adds: "We have to think in the whole food chain, really is it benefiting everyone equally? At the moment you see, the customer because they don't benefit they are free to reject these..... [Customers are not benefiting, because with] the GM crops at the moment, the food is no different... it's no cheaper, it doesn't taste better.... For them, I'd say its a cost free decision to reject GM crops."

So if the evidence of risk is already there, or at the very least that possible risks need to be looked at more carefully, and if benefits to farmers and consumers are questionable or non-existent, then what is the legal and economic justification for proceding with the commercialisation of GM crops in the EU at this stage?
Or is the public about to 'Iraqed' again?
In order to support its case for the war in Iraq the British government even submitted forged documents to the UN ( ).

 If that experience is anything to go by, anyone who wishes to rely on the British goverment for the reliable assessment of evidence during the process of public policy debate may have to think again.
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Tearing Down Biotech's 'Berlin Wall'
The Acceptable Face Of Ag-biotech


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